Policymakers need to work more closely with researchers to fight the global food crisis

In the face of the current food crisis, we need global collaboration more than ever, said Line Gordon, director of the centre. Photo: Johannes Ernstberger

We are facing the worst food crisis in modern history – Sweden and the EU need to take action to shift how food is produced and consumed. That was the message from researchers to policymakers during a high-level meeting for the Swedish government at Stockholm Resilience Centre

”The food crisis drives insecurity and conflict. We need global collaboration more than ever, said Line Gordon, professor and director for Stockholm Resilience Centre in her opening remark.

The world is on the brink of the largest food crisis in modern history, a crisis that has been exacerbated by the climate crisis and the war in Ukraine.

According to recent estimates, 345 million people face acute food insecurity today, 200 million more than before the covid-19 pandemic. Albert Norström, researcher at Stockholm Resilience Centre and Head of Knowledge and Evidence at the Global Resilience Partnership, opened the briefing by highlighting that this is part of a worrying longer-term trend that has seen global food insecurity and food shocks steadily rising across the world. In fact, the trends from the food system are only one of many signals that we have entered the new global risk landscape of the Anthropocene, where events such as pandemics, financial crashes and synchronized food shocks propagate more rapidly than in the past and with greater geographic spread.

Systemic weaknesses

This was the dire backdrop to the high-level meeting of the Stockholm Hub on Environment, Climate and Security, a collaboration of Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), and Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI). In the briefing experts from the above institutions discussed the implications of the current food crises with policymakers and officials from Swedish Parliament, government ministries and agencies.

What makes the current food crisis so dangerous are the many systemic weaknesses in today’s global food systems. Over the past decades, the way we consume, produce, and trade food has become more simplified, intensified and overly connected, Magnus Nyström, professor at Stockholm Resilience Centre said.

Today, agriculture uses seventy per cent of available freshwater, a resource which, with climate change, is only going to get more difficult to harness. Almost fifty per cent of the calories we eat come from three different crops, wheat, maize and rice. And the trade network for food and agricultural inputs, such as fertilizers, is built on surprisingly fragile links, as shown in a new study by Magnus Nyström and research colleagues published in Nature Sustainability.

This point was also taken up by Åsa Persson, deputy director at SEI, who stressed the importance of supply chains for Swedish food consumption. A better understanding of climate risks in these supply chains is going to be an important step for making Swedish food systems more resilient, according to her.

From left to right: Åsa Persson, deputy director at SEI, Dan Smith, executive director at SIPRI and Torgny Holmgren, executive director at SIWI. Photo: Johannes Ernstberger.

A perfect storm

All these factors make today’s food systems extremely vulnerable and have paved the way for widespread food insecurity.

Importantly, the effects of this crisis are not locally contained, they are global. Food prices are on the rise around the world. Together with climate change, lingering effects from the covid-19 pandemic, and ongoing violent conflicts, not least the war in Ukraine, they form a dangerous cocktail and “perfect storm for the global food crisis”, according to Cibele Queiroz, researcher at Stockholm Resilience Centre and Global Resilience Partnership.

The links between conflicts and food security become particularly vicious under these circumstances. Lack of food security can create social unrest and grievances that easily spark conflicts, explained Caroline Delgado, senior researcher at SIPRI. The resulting violence then further aggravates food insecurity.

Such interlinkages are still difficult for many state actors to handle, admits Helen Eduards, Director General for International Development Cooperation at the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who took part in the knowledge briefing. Food policies, security policies and environmental policies are too often handled separately, and Helen Eduards stressed the importance of overcoming these institutional silos together with the help of researchers and the private sector. She sees Sweden’s term as president of the Council of the EU as an opportunity to push for this.

Avoiding false solutions

Fortunately, there are ways forward. To start with, policymakers must ditch false simplified solutions, according to Amanda Wood, researcher at Stockholm Resilience Centre: Neither more humanitarian food aid, more food production, nor shifting food systems to become either more local or global can help change the systemic issues at the core of the food crisis.

Real solutions require changes to the food system with a new focus on increasing resilience instead of production. From a Swedish perspective, ways forward include better targets on the environmental impacts of food – not just within Sweden but even for outsourced aspects of the food system.

Amanda Wood, researcher at the centre. Photo: Johannes Ernstberger

Line Gordon, director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, sees an important step in changing what we eat: “We need to shift diets, especially in the global North. Eating more healthily means cutting some of the food groups that have the most impact on the biosphere. Recent research has also shown that this could make us more independent from imports from among others Russia.”

Also, Amanda Wood advocates a rethink of how the Nordic countries view competitiveness: Instead of competing in producing more and more, Sweden and similar countries could aim for producing better, more high-quality food and exporting food tech innovations.

On top of these longer-term solutions, Dan Smith, executive director of SIPRI, stressed that we need short-term solutions as well: “We are not going to solve the food crisis at the sharp end unless we manage to achieve peace and keep it.”

Torgny Holmgren, executive director of SIWI, sees worrying clouds on the horizon as the pressure on natural resources, not least freshwater increases. Nevertheless, he emphasised that “countries can successfully cooperate on water,” and that agreements on freshwater resources can be an entry point for wider peacebuilding.

This was echoed by Line Gordon who sees cooperation as a main pathway forward: “We will need global collaboration and trust building to overcome the global food crisis.”

This article was originally published by Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) 30 January 2023.